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From the first TV tubes to Brigham Young’s hair, Utah’s historical treasures sit in a leaky basement

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah's first flag sits on a work table in the basement of the Rio Grande Depot, home of the Utah state historical offices, on Feb. 15, 2018. Archivists are concerned about the current storage facility and the potential for serious damage from water to the collection of artifacts and documents it houses.

The first Utah state flag ever sewn lies on a table in front of a cluster of valves for the fire sprinklers in the Rio Grande Depot in Salt Lake City.

Plastic sheeting hangs where the ceiling once leaked onto shelves that held masonry tools used to build the Mormon temples in St. George and Manti, mementos from Utah’s World War I veterans, and glass tubes created by Philo Farnsworth for his early television developments.

A wedding dress from 1843, brought from Nauvoo, Ill., by one of Utah’s first Mormon women, sits in a cardboard box inches from water damage on the floor.

State historians say more than $100 million in artifacts are in peril — and some already have been ruined — in their present home in the Rio Grande basement, under the state history offices. Items are crowded into shelves in rooms without climate control or earthquake protection — a particular danger for the archives’ selection of 1.5 million historic photos, many of which are on glass negatives.

“There’s not a staff person here that hasn’t gone home and had a bad dream about what could happen,” said Doug Misner, collections manager for the Utah Division of State History.

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Megan Weiss, an archive technician at the Utah State Archive, shows a water-damaged box in the basement at the Utah State Archive.

The division has proposed an $18 million collections building across the street from the historic depot. It would have high-density shelving, low-impact lighting, a loading area for traveling exhibits and a research room, said Josh Loftin, spokesman for the division. The Legislature is now considering whether to budget $1.5 million for planning and design.

Critically, the design also would have modern climate controls.

“This room is really warm, with steam pipes coming through,” archivist Melissa Coy said in the depot’s manuscript room, which also contains a hodgepodge of clothing and other artifacts, such as a hutch from the Topaz internment camp in Delta.

Temperature is one of the most damaging factors in the basement, especially for paper documents and nitrate and acetate photo materials, Coy said. It bobbles between 70 and 80 degrees, Loftin said; 68 degrees and up poses a high risk of decay for most historical material, according to the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Image Permanence Institute.

A 1920s photo negative of the old Warm Springs municipal bath — later known as the Wasatch Springs plunge — has disintegrated into blackish crumbs. The staff has pushed freezers into a backroom for cold storage to house sensitive negatives.

But most of the artifacts don’t have that protection. In the manuscripts room, letters, journals and business records sit in cardboard boxes stacked nearly to the ceiling, which once leaked onto a shelf that contained uncataloged boxes of documents.

“These are irreplaceable,” Coy said, opening a folder of letters sent to a Beaver County family from a son on the Western Front in 1918. “You can’t get another letter from [Pvt. George] Grimshaw to his parents.”

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Doug Misner shows some of Philo Farnsworth's television tubes that are stored in the basement at the Utah State Archive, Feb. 15, 2018.

The ceiling has posed a number of problems, from leaks in the manuscripts and artifacts rooms to construction debris falling from a vent in the photo room just above a shelf with pictures from Westminster College dating to 1875. Only 275,000 of the state’s 1.5 million historical photos have been digitized, Misner said.

A handful of the division’s artifacts is on display in the Rio Grande lobby, but nearly everything else is exposed to the conditions in the basement.

In the textile room, a digital thermometer tracks temperatures and humidity but can’t adjust either. A channel was built along the back wall to collect water that leaked through the foundation one spring. A few feet away, a box made of archival-grade cardboard holds a Civil War uniform. Water can be heard rushing through pipes overhead whenever someone flushes a toilet near the Rio Grande Cafe overhead.

“It is an ever-present worry for us,” Misner said, “that something will happen and we’ll lose something: a water break or a fire — we’re under a restaurant — or the environmental conditions themselves … or even a power outage.”

Water and heat have repeatedly crept into rooms that store items ranging from vintage dental tools to photos of the Capitol being constructed to a framed lock of Brigham Young’s hair — but few items have been destroyed. Some vinyl records were lost when water leaked from the manuscripts room ceiling onto boxes of audio recordings. Some photo negatives have degraded in the heat. The lid of a textile box shows a large water stain — but staff rescued the 19th-century Victorian bodices inside before the water soaked through.

“When there’s a problem, the staff is on it right away,” Misner said. ”[But] we have had … close calls.”

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